Thierry Neuville has shared his side of the story after he and long-term co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul decided to go their separate ways on the eve of the 2021 World Rally Championship season, but revealed “he wasn’t prepared” for the split.
Neuville announced on Friday morning that he would not have Gilsoul alongside him in his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC just six days before the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.
The Belgian pair had been testing with Hyundai Motorsport as recently as Tuesday but Neuville will now be co-driven by Martijn Wydaeghe instead.
DirtFish revealed earlier on Friday that Gilsoul’s departure came as a “big shock” to the Hyundai team and it appears Neuville feels the same as he addressed the situation in a press conference on Friday evening.
“I am most surprised myself,” he said. “I would certainly not have done the tests on Tuesday with Nico if I had known that we would not contest the rally together.
“One thing should be clear to everyone: if I had planned to change my co-driver, I would certainly not have done it so shortly before the start of the season, but earlier.
“I didn’t expect to be in such a situation three days before the start of the route inspection. I actually thought everything would go on like last year. That was what I assumed.
That’s his choice. We lived together wonderful adventures. We will live some more again.Nicolas Gilsoul
“I didn’t have a co-driver until yesterday [Thursday],” he added. “So I had to make a decision. And together with Hyundai, we then decided that a plan B was needed.”
Wydaeghe is that plan B, and he and Neuville will face a steep challenge of acclimatization on the Monte next week.
While they will work together on recce, Wydaeghe’s first competitive outing alongside Neuville will be the rally’s very first stage as there is no shakedown this year due to a 6pm-6am local curfew introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 in southern France.
Neuville described Wydaeghe as the “best solution” with his previous knowledge of competing – alongside Hyundai’s former Korean protégé Chewon Lim and Neuville’s current team-mate Craig Breen – and working as a team coordinator and as weather crew with Hyundai. But Neuville confessed “the big question is cooperation in the car”.
“The hardest task will be to do the notes together, but we will of course prepare together this weekend,” he added.
“It will definitely be a huge challenge. Martijn is someone who is very motivated. But at the moment we don’t really know what to expect. Of course, there is no guarantee that it will work immediately.”
It is understood that Neuville’s 11th hour change of co-driver is because of a contractual disagreement between Neuville and Gilsoul. While Neuville has a contract with Hyundai Motorsport, Gilsoul had one with Neuville who paid him for his services.
While Neuville wouldn’t divulge any specific details, he said his former arrangement with Gilsoul “is so common and Hyundai would not have accepted anything else”.
On any further reason for the break-up, Neuville said: “Of course we didn’t always agree, but we always got everything settled and came back stronger. There has been no argument between us now.
“I’m not a particularly emotional person but a break-up always hurts. And I wasn’t prepared for it. We had a very good, professional relationship and yet a few real fits of laughter in the car.”